Ted’s driving suit lay draped across the chair, his driving gloves carefully arranged on the seat, his helmet upon the adjacent table. Four picture displays stood arranged on the wall. I crowded in to look.
So many images of my friend Ted watching as Tim torques down the head of his new racing engine. Ted’s old stock car, for when he had drop the ‘ski’ from his name at NASCAR tracks. Ted grinning, cigarette dangling from his fingertips. Ted with his girlfriend, who unfortunately had to find his body.
The memories move on and on, telling a story of a rich life, a life full of friends and pleasure. I am in none of those photos, though I counted him a friend, as he did me.
I joined the SCCA on a whim, after watching a death struggle of an H Production race at The Runoffs in 1998. Six weeks later I received my first copy of The Observer’s Stand, the magazine produced by what I realized was my region, which would later write for. I noticed something called a ‘socializer’. Presumably that meant I was invited, so I decided to attend.
I knew nobody. Not one solitary soul, and everyone seemed to know anyone else. I sat at the table, ate my burrito and listened.
To the stories. These men and women were racers. It was the winter, so they talked about car preparation, how the new fiberglass fenders had helped shed 300 pounds but the car was still 200 pounds overweight. About the car they’d just bought, and was there a better way to get some negative camber into a mid eighties mustang.
Then an older man with a white beard and a cigarette in his left hand asked who I was. His speech was slightly disjointed, the result of what I later learned was a stroke. I introduced myself and explained how I had joined at The Runoffs. He told me his name was Ted.
We talked for a while and then a slim woman came over to chat with Ted. I met Jude that night. Later Phil, and Ken, and several other people whose names I would not remember for a long time, or they mine, but I now count as friends.
In the worker’s camper area at Mid Ohio Sports Car Course, Louie Beal and his wife Suzy keep a trailer. The awning is spread wide and decorated by Christmas lights though it is summer. They and the campfire light the trees in ghostly golden glow. Ostensibly, the fire for the corner workers, the men and women of Lake Erie Communications, but everyone is always welcome, and most know it. Men and women sit around the fire, sharing stories, and sipping drinks, either from coolers or the occasional flask.
This is where we party when the main cookout has died down. Race teams mostly return to the paddock, where they keep their trailers and cars. A few people go home. Some hold their own, smaller parties. But most race workers end up around that particular campfire and trailer, because they know the fire will blaze and the beer almost always cold.
I decided I needed to contribute. I own a large wheeled cooler, and I can’t stand Miller Light, the beer of choice at Mid Ohio, for the practical reason that Miller sponsors many track events. I prefer beer with actual flavor. Porter stouts or amber ales. Rich beer with enough body to fill Jeri Ryan’s Starfleet uniform. When I come to fire I drag my cooler behind. I plopped down at a picnic table. Ted was there, and grateful for something with actual taste. We talked about the days racing, an epic battle for the lead in ITB with seven cars running nose to tail.
Ted had raced ITB. We talked about how the cars were prepared, and all the cheating that goes on. Yes, people cheat in racing. It’s almost a sport, a game played between winning and ‘getting caught’. The line between 'creative intepretation' and 'twisting the rules into a pretzel' is fine indeed. Ted asserted that one of the guys up front ran a motor that wasn’t even close to legal, as he had left Ted’s car in a cloud of dust, back when Ted’s car had an engine. Ted wasn’t mad about this, it was simply part of the game. If he could have afforded the same motor, he’d have run it.
For the next three years, almost every weekend Ted and I ended up at that or another picnic table, or easy chair. Sipping beer, the occasional whiskey, or some other concoction, telling lies. He was there for New Years and Roland’s 24 hours of Daytona party. He helped give Racer Phil the inflatable sheep with pink garters. When I pulled my ITB car into the lane at Funder Alley, a race car show for charity, Ted looked it over carefully, pointing out places where I could shed a little weight. I didn’t know it at the time, but he was really giving it full tech inspection, trying to make sure the car was safe for me to race. But he smiled at me proudly, because he could see the pride I felt for my new race car, and the upcoming racing career I approached with both fear and anticipation. He lobbied for me to take my first driver’s school at IRP, suggesting the he could ask to have me as his student.
After I crashed he was blunt, that I’d screwed up. He hadn’t wanted me to run that race, feeling I wasn’t ready. Events proved him correct. But he also realized that wreck shattered my confidence. He saw just how much it had hurt me. So he lobbied for me to get a new car, suggesting this car or that one, all good cars, all reasonably priced. I could have bought a couple of good ITB cars for reasonable prices, and when I didn’t go for those he found me something even cheaper, though no where near the bargain. Ted understood that what I needed was to get back onto my horse.
He looked after me in many ways. When he realized I hadn’t really dated since a bad relationship, he fixed me up, suggesting this person, or that dating site. We had dinner and watched races together. We met at parties. Ted became my friend.
There are many pictures that never get taken. Life is a series of interconnected moments, like the frames on a motion picture. Perhaps some are not significant, but the smallest moment may prove significant. Friendships don’t come in a flood; they build in small ways, little interactions that build to a greater sum over time. So that when you see your friend you smile because his or her mere presence makes the day something to look forward to.
As I looked at the pictures of Ted’s life. I could feel the tears coming. Not for Ted, who’s probably sharing a drink with Innes Ireland right now. Mine were selfish tears, because I realized I wouldn’t be in any new snapshots, that he would never again grace the campfire, or find me another race car worth buying. About the stories I hadn’t yet told him. It was harder to look, but harder to look away.
Kirsten stopped us to make an announcement. We were meeting at Speeds, a local indoor go kart track much appreciated by us SCCA types. We need a place to go fast in the off-season, and Speeds isn’t the joke that Malibu Grand Prix was. You get to race wheel to wheel, and the track is almost a half mile long, long enough to have some fast sections. As in 45 MPH fast. Plus, it’s a lot cheaper than racing a car. Klaus let us have the room for free, and donated on free heat for everyone.
It’s a noble gesture. In fact, it’s the perfect gesture to honor a man who spent his entire life in racing, and made his best friends there. I feel myself pulled. There are some awfully fast people signing up, many who have competed at The Runoffs. And my confidence has never recovered from my accident at Summit Point. Deep down, I really wonder if I can drive. But Ted never stopped trying to get me back in a car. He would be disappointed if I didn’t drive. For him, I take a sheet and sign up.
A few minutes later I am in my kart. Front row, center, pole position. I have Sue to my left and Brian behind me, and both have qualified for the Runoffs. And we’re doing something special, a pace lap to honor Ted. As pole sitter, I have to control the pace. And everyone will be watching.
I slowly roll out trying to maintain a slow and careful pace. It works fine in the faster sections of the track, but as the turns get tight I discover something. Karts have locked rear ends. Just like my old IT car. The driving wheels move at exactly the same speed, all of the time. Which means it simply will not turn at all unless the power is on,. I can’t go as slow as I like. I have to speed up to get through the corners, and more importantly, so everyone else can.
On the other hand, that piece of knowledge just told me how to drive these karts. I may use the brakes, but I must use the gas.
Slowly we move up to the starting line, in a perfect staggered formation. Ted would have been pleased. I see the starter leaning forward with the flag.
Sue takes off. Brian hits me from behind. I’ve been flagging too long, waiting for the flag when a more experienced driver would have recognized that lean and mashed the gas. Right away, I'm passed twice by people who were already accelerating.
One of them looks really smooth. He’s been here before, that much is obvious. Best to tuck in behind him and learn the course, where to brake, where to place the kart. But then we get to the first really slow turn, a hard ninety-degree right-hander that begins an S- turn. He brakes, I reach for my brakes.
Oops wrong foot. I’m too used to braking with the right foot, and reach for a pedal that isn’t there. I push with the left foot too late. Now I'm spinning. I sit helplessly as everyone motors by. With everyone watching.
But they are by, and now I can concentrate on driving, learning the track. And this kart. The clutch is slow to engage, so if you lose too much speed it will take seconds before the power comes on. Braking too hard will rotate the rear end, and long years have trained my right foot rather than the left.
But if I can control that rotation I might be able to gain a bit around the three really tight corners.
Either way, it’s time to drive. Mash that gas pedal, and keep the right foot planted. I turn in for the fast first turn and feel the gee force builds and then a slow release as I play out the steering. Drift to the outside to set up for the next. Speed, delicious speed comes up, sending adrenalin through my body. The motor pounds. The wheel twitches between my fingers, and the kart leaps ahead. I begin to recognize corners, prepare brake points.
I’m going fast now, starting to feel what the kart is doing. The faster I go, the easier it gets.
I turn a bit late and drift out at full throttle. The wall comes up, and I hit it, but not hard enough to lift. Keep that throttle planted boy, turn out to set up for the next left, Brake now, and turn, turn, hold that wheel then slowly release it as the power comes up. Let her drift left, and then now hard right again, gas mashed all the way to the floor.
The laps build and I pass Brian, spun out to my right.
Up ahead of me, growing larger, I see . . . a victim.
I watch him as I close, trying to learn his ways. He’s braking too early and trying to finesse his way around the corner. But this isn’t a formula ford with a limited slip differential and six hewland gears. It’s a kart, and it likes its neck wrung a bit. I’m on the power earlier and accelerating harder, Most of all, I’m carrying more speed out of the corner. It’s a matter of time.
I close up on him and decided to take him on the inside of a left right combo. He hears me behind him pushing him hard, and tries a bit too hard. The result is a quick snap spin.
Right in front of me.
I slam on the brakes barely catching my own rear end. My kart stops inches from his. He takes off first, and I have to let him go, waiting for my clutch to catch. But he’s mine, and we both know it. Slowly the speed comes up and I slip the car. We’re at another of those hard esses and this time I brake really late and mash the gas the moment I feel the rear end break loose.
The kart skitters around and I’m off, gaining speed. Another hard left again, and this time I have him, cutting inside and braking in the middle of the curve. The rear end steps out as planned but I catch it with the throttle, my kart aimed straight down the track. I’m ahead.
Unfortunately the oversteer move has cost me too much speed. The engine revs dropped too low. He’s on the gas sooner and starting to pull ahead. But not far enough. I’ve got the inside line going onto the next corner, and I’m not lifting. We head down the chute. He hits the brakes sooner, and I’m by.
The sound of his kart falls back and I spot another ahead. I want him, and resume the chase. And from above, I feel Ted smile.